ASHBURN, Va. (AP) — Twelve games and eight losses into a season that has slipped away from the Washington Commanders, Ron Rivera made the move he felt necessary to try to turn things around by firing defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio.
Owner Josh Harris approved the move, which saved Rivera’s job for now. Rivera is taking over the defensive play-calling duties — an adjustment for the veteran coach and his team just in time to host the AFC East-leading Miami Dolphins and their NFL-best offense.
Rivera wants the defense, which ranks 29th of 32 teams and gave up 431 yards Thursday in a 45-10 loss at Dallas, to play faster. It’s on him to make that happen.
“It’s most certainly different and just takes a little bit to get used to,” said Rivera, who last did this with Carolina in 2018 when he fired defensive coordinator Eric Washington. “The biggest thing is just paying attention and watching the game tape and really just taking the notes from each game that we’ve had this year. I think it’s just a matter of getting a sense and a feel for what our guys do best, and that will come as each game unfolds.”
In preparation for their game against the Dolphins, players practiced with helmets Wednesday — a departure from previous weeks — to get used to Rivera calling the plays. Already, the retired linebacker is making his voice heard.
“It’s exciting seeing coach be hands-on and more involved with the defense,” defensive tackle Jonathan Allen said. “I’m looking forward to seeing how we respond.”
After three full seasons and more than half of another with Del Rio in charge, defenders acknowledged it’s weird not having him and defensive backs coach Brent Vieselmeyer on the practice field. But it’s not surprising Rivera made the moves after the Commanders allowed 290-plus yards in 11 of 12 games and more than 30 points seven times.
“We could be as good as we want to be, but this league it’s not about potential, it’s about production,” cornerback Kendall Fuller said. “It’s just about us going out there, executing and making the plays that we need to make to win football games.”
Fuller said it’s incumbent on him and his teammates to make good on the plays Rivera calls. To read and react faster, the defense will be simplified from what Del Rio was running.
“When you’re not thinking, you’re playing fast,” Allen said. “We’ve got a lot of young guys on the back end. Have them thinking less and just playing faster, and that includes the linebackers and the D-line.”
Quarterback Sam Howell, while expressing disappointment in the firings of Del Rio and Vieselmeyer, does not expect the changes to affect much of his dealings with offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy. Howell and Bieniemy have worked together closely dating to offseason workouts.
“He learns more about me, and I learn more about him every single week as we kind of go through this thing,” said Howell, who leads the league with 323 completions, 486 attempts, 3,339 passing yards and 55 times sacked and is tied with Buffalo’s Josh Allen for the most interceptions with 13.
“(Bieniemy has) always asked for my feedback and input, and he’s always respected my opinion as far as if it’s something I do like, something I don’t like. He’s been very good about stuff like that. It’s fun to play for a coach that values your opinion.”
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